Saturday, November 04, 2006

Medieval Monsters (October 2006)

If you think King Kong, Jurassic Park, and Ghostbusters make this the era of terrifying creatures, you should have been around in the Middle Ages. In Medieval times the popular culture was full of Fantastical Beasts derived from Greek myth, pagan traditions, and voyagers with overactive imaginations. “Here be dragons” was the label mapmakers put at the edge of the known world, and art, literature, and even architecture were covered with images of sea serpents, unicorns and gargoyles. So, since this is the season for frightful fun, let’s explore some of these classic ghouls ... if you dare.

Gargoyles, of course, are those stony monsters that served as rainspouts on Gothic cathedrals all over Europe. (In fact, the word “gargoyle” is related to “gargle,” which makes them seem less scary already.) No one really knows why they were put there, but they’re so much fun for stone carvers to create, and other people to find, that they’ve been included in buildings right through the 20th century. Sculptor Joe Chiffriller offers virtual tours of ancient gargoyles in London, Paris, and Florence, but as sites like New York Carver and The Monster Walks prove, there are plenty of roof-top surprises much closer to home. I used to work at night on Wall Street, and I’ll never forget the shock of walking through a nearly-empty office on the top floor of the Woolworth Building and spying a weird figure right outside the window.

One of the most comprehensive gargoyle sites on the Web belongs to Chicago stone carver Walter S. Arnold, who trained in Italy and produced more than 90 of the 112 architectural carvings on the Washington National Cathedral. He’s got pictures showing show how gargoyles are created from start to finish. The National Cathedral itself has downloadable pages describing its gargoyles and identifying the recognizable models, including Darth Vader.

Even though the website doesn’t show it, visitors to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts know that climbing on the 7-foot-high pillar of gargoyle, created by the illustrator’s son, Peter Rockwell, is a must. (You can see other examples of his sculpture at the website of St. Paul’s Within the Walls American Episcopal Church in Rome.) Also nearby in Troy, New York, more than 100 gargoyles frolic all around the campus of Emma Willard School, including 30 running, bowling, wrestling, and somersaulting goblins on the former gym, and lively portraits of Teddy Roosevelt, George Washington and Abe Lincoln. The school’s website points them out for you.

If that’s not enough, the students of Marshall Middle School in Wisconsin have created a gargoyles, cathedrals and castles links page as part of their study of the Middle Ages. Or try some gargoyle crafts at home: Sculpey, the clay that hardens when baked, has directions for creating a mini-gargoyle, or make a “stone” gargoyle costume using directions from the archives of FamilyFun magazine.

But maybe gruesome isn’t your style. In that case, you might want to explore Medieval renditions of unicorns and dragons. The magical unicorn, with its regal horse-like body and majestic horn, appeared in legend, song, and wonderful tapestries of the period. The Hunt of the Unicorn series at The Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, can be read just like a comic strip as it follows the pursuit and capture of the elusive beast. A slide show narrated by Museum Director Philippe de Montebello tells the whole story on The Met’s website. Or learn about another famous tapestry series, The Lady and The Unicorn, from the (English-language) website of the Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris. The legend of Saint George, the patron saint of England, slaying a dragon inspired many Medieval paintings, and the National Gallery of Art takes a thorough look at a version by Rogier van der Weyden from 1435.

Of course there were no DVDs in the Middle Ages, so where did Europeans go when they wanted a good horror story? To Bestiaries, or books about beasts. Here were gathered stories about dragons, unicorns and other fearsome animals, along with more gentle creatures like the barnacle goose, which grew from the branches of trees and dropped into the water when mature, all with elaborate illustrations. You can share their terror and delight at The Medieval Bestiary, an online project of Canadian David Badke. You may never scream at the sight of a mere movie monster again.

Family Online Picks:

New York Carver

Monster Walks

Walter S. Arnold

Washington National Cathedral

Peter Rockwell (

Emma Willard School

Gargoyles and Cathedrals(

Sculpey Gargoyles (

Gargoyle Costume (

The Hunt of the Unicorn (

The Lady and the Unicorn (

Saint George and the Dragon (;

The Medieval Bestiary (